It’s only less than 100 days left till Copenhagen and reading the news about progress that has not been made, can be a pretty depressing experience. However, what gives me a glimpse of hope is that there are not only nontransparent political problems that we can discuss and do research about, but also technical and sometimes surprisingly clever inventions that seem to open up the almost closed door a crack. As you know, we need to do more than paying political lip-service to solve our climate crisis. One of the most important steps is a complete make-over of our current energy system that is still heavily dependent on fossil and therefore limited energy resources.
With this in mind, the EU has elected to increase the use of renewable energy, but the potential for renewable energy in Europe is limited and unevenly distributed. Therefore, Europeans have started to think beyond their own borders and are now discussing, whether we could utilize the enormous potential for solar and wind energy in the deserts of North Africa.
It’s pretty certain that renewable electricity from North Africa would be sufficient to satisfy the electricity needs of the Mediterranean and the rest of Europe many times over, but: Not only would the electricity have to be transported over vast distances from North Africa to European load centres – it would also cause high transmission losses and probably simply not be feasible to be transported with the current AC system.
So what do we need? The technology to transport electricity efficiently over vast distances has indeed already been available for decades. It’s called “HVDC”, which stands for “High Voltage Direct Current” technology. The idea to transport enegery over long distances, for e.g. from North Africa, is usually known as “SuperGrid”. One such SuperGrid Vision is the DESERTEC Concept of the Club of Rome, which aims to combine the desert of Africa with the technology of Europe.
But to manage the varying power levels and energy needs, we not only need a SuperGrid, but also a decentralized approach, usually known as a “SmartGrid”. Such a concept would be based on a cluster of distributed generation installations like gas turbines, microturbines, small wind turbines etc. which are then connected within a SmartGrid that would help to smooth the supply-controlled feed-in of sources like wind via a central control entity.
Cleverly combined, this would result in a SuperSmart Grid that would take advantage of both worlds: the decentralized structure and the import of endless renewable energy from Northern Africa. The SuperSmart Grid would operate “on top” of the current HVAC grid—only handling long-distance transmission—and existing AC grids would still distribute electricity over shorter domestic distances.
However, there are still a number of problems and challenges we face, some of them once more open questions that we are mostly unable to answer at this point of time.
1) The sheer magnitude of the investment that would be needed (4 Billion US-Dollars for the Desertec solution)
2) Financial Uncertainties: To be competitive, the energy produced in the SSG must be as affordable as other sources for the clients in Europe, which would be only possible if heavily subsidized in the beginning and in case the price for other energy sources rises as predicted
3) Politcal insecurities: The political situation in Northern Africa is quite unstable – and Europe doesn’t want to be dependent on imports from unreliable regions…
But, most importantly, guys: We do not really have any alternative. Already, the EU is importing more than 50% of its fossil energy resources, which is expected to rise to a level of more than 2/3 by 2030.
So what we really need to make a step forward, is more political awareness about these kind of solutions and possibilities – and a will to discuss about and lobby for them! Despite the conceptual simplicity of the SuperSmart Grid idea, there appears to be almost no political pressure on governments to engage in any action at all. Historically, the most public expenditure has been for nuclear power – and yet, we need new ideas for our future!
If you take a closer look at those two European Energy giants that also dominate the German market, RWE and E.On, they would rather benefit from other technologies, such as carbon capture and storage to become feasible and cost effective, since they already run so many coal-burning power plants… so how can we generate enough political support for policies promoting extra-European renewable energy generation of and transmission?
How can we make sure those companies do not just make funny adverts like that one shown above by GE, but really act in our best interest? Well, one thing you can do for sure, at least as a German, is using the “Climate Lie Detector” and check out, what companies interests actually really are…http://www.klima-luegendetektor.de/
And the second thing you can do: Keep yourself informed, read about those new opportunities and ask your politicians, what they think and do about it. And last, but not least: Ask yourself: Have you already switched to “ecotricity” and thereby made a clear statement as a customer, what you really want? For German readers: Check out this site and you’ll know that you’ll better want to switch your energy provider..:-)